Southern Indiana Black Farming Community a Hit at the Smithsonian

Slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, jazz — these are the traditional touch points of African-American history.

But at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, a modest exhibit devoted to a small farming community in southern Indiana has generated buzz.

The exhibit’s two dozen or so objects — including a horse-drawn plow, a hand-held corn planter and a quilt — are artifacts from an unincorporated burg called Lyles Station. There, free blacks settled, cleared the land and worked their own soil prior to the Civil War, a remarkable feat considering slavery was still the law of the land in half the country, including in Kentucky just 35 miles to the south.

That such a place would have existed has been a surprise to some museumgoers. “There has been very little study of African-American land-owning pioneering farmers in the antebellum period,” says Anna-Lisa Cox, a fellow at Harvard University whose research was used in developing the Lyles Station exhibit.

Lyles Station was one of dozens of free black farm communities in the Midwest, which in the early 19th century was still referred to as the “Northwest Territory,” the region’s official name before it was carved into states.

Its settlers were indomitable people who endured not only the Fugitive Slave Act and other race-based indignities but also continual flooding. The land they acquired was low-lying and near three major rivers.

“The old men were smart men, and they taught us the land was important,” says Stanley Madison, a Lyles Station resident who founded the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corp. in 1997. Madison works his fields less than a mile from where his great-great-grandfather worked his.

That’s the other remarkable thing about Lyles Station: It still exists. It’s one of the last mid-1800s black farming communities still going.

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Source: USA Today | Will Higgins, The Indianapolis Star